Beekeepers Breed Region-Specific Queens

By Julie Sabatier, host of radio show Destination DIY

Beekeeping is an up-and-coming hobby in the Pacific Northwest. More and more people are applying for permits and plenty of people are flying below the radar with unpermitted backyard beehives. And even though the practice has been around for more than 4000 years, there are some new innovations in the world of beekeeping.

Queen bees in Portland are typically shipped from California or Hawaii and odds are poor that bees hailing from warmer climates will live through a Pacific Northwest winter. Tim Wessels and his business partner, Glen Andressen operate Bridgetown Bees. The epicenter of their project is the bee breeding yard. It’s tucked away on a hillside. 

Bees at Tim Wessels and Glen Andresen's bee mating yard. By Jaymee Cuti/Destination DIYDozens of brightly colored hives pop out from overgrown brush. Glen says, “Portland Urban Beekeepers did a survey to see what percent of colonies were lost from the urban beekeepers. Of those who filled out the survey, 42 percent of the colonies were lost over winter. That’s a hit.”

But the queens in their mating yard will survive the winter if Tim and Glen are successful. They’re attempting to breed queens that are region-specific. That means they’re selecting colonies with queens that have already survived at least one Portland winter, so they’re more likely to be resistant to pests and diseases.

“Nothing in our past experience taught us how to breed bees. The thing that qualified us to breed these bees is we were losing dozens of colonies and it’s expensive to replace them,” says Glen.

Glen is a longtime beekeeper and all-around renaissance man. Twenty-five years ago, he had no clue that bees would play a leading role in his story. He explained that he started beekeeping in the early 1990s when a friend who asked if he might be willing to take over his two-colony operation. “I contemplated it for five minutes and it changed the course of my life,” Glen remembers.

Today, he keeps more than 60 colonies. Matt Reed also understands the power of bees. He actually abandoned a stable tech career to open his beekeeping store.

Matt looks like a fresh-faced farmer wearing Buddy Holly glasses. He started his business, Bee Thinking, after a magical encounter with a bee.

Photo: Bees at Tim Wessels and Glen Andresen's bee mating yard. By Jaymee Cuti/Destination DIY

“I walked into the kitchen and I noticed a honeybee in the windowsill,” he explains. “I saw she was alive but she wasn’t doing very well. So, I grabbed a plate and I warmed it up, thinking she’s an insect, so she’s probably cold blooded, warned up the plate and then pushed her onto it and then I got some honey and put it on the plate. And then I watched as she ran for honey and started drinking and gaining energy. And then I took her to the front porch and she flew away. I was very proud. I ran inside. I told my wife. She thought I was crazy.”

Matt Reed and one of his bee hives. By Jaymee Cuti/Destination DIYPretty soon, a bunch of honeybees showed up at Matt’s door. He thinks it’s because that one that he rescued told the others about this food source. He was hooked.

You’ve probably heard that bees are in trouble. They’re disappearing by the millions because of the mysterious colony collapse disorder. It continues to be a controversial diagnosis but beekeepers have narrowed the causes to pesticide poisoning and parasite infestations. Matt Reed suggests that novice beekeepers also over-diagnose the disorder when their bees don’t survive a winter.

He says, “Honeybees have been around for millions of years. They have a lot of different pests and diseases that affect them and it’s probably not the worst case scenario; it’s probably one of these other things that killed them.”

With a million year track record of turning pollen into honey, it’s fair to question whether bees need beekeepers. They’re kind of like cats — domesticated, but only to a certain extent. Matt finds freedom in this notion that the bees will keep doing what they do, regardless of human intervention.

“Yeah, the great thing about beekeeping is it seems to cater to tinkerers,” Matt says. “I think there’s a lot of people that get into beekeeping because they want to make some new contraption to keep bees in. The bees probably don’t care, but you may have the coolest hive on the block.”

From raising their own queens to keeping their hives spotless and running a serious operation with products like honey and wax, it seems like bees are the true DIYers. Some people are just compelled to watch them work.

Photo: Matt Reed and one of his bee hives. By Jaymee Cuti/Destination DIY

This piece first aired on Destination DIY. You can listen to an extended version here:

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